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Negotiation with all extremist groups is inevitable, says Blair's ex-chief of staff

Posted on 28/11/2014

Negotiations with violent extremist groups such as Islamic State are ‘inevitable’, Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell said at an event at King’s College London last night.

Speaking at the launch of his new book: ‘Talking to Terrorists’, Mr Powell, who was chief negotiator in the Northern Ireland peace deal, said history has repeatedly shown that however brutal the terror tactics, face to face talks will eventually take place.

‘I believe that there’s no conflict in the world that cannot be solved by negotiating- if you are prepared to,’ he said.

Mr Powell said there had been numerous groups in the recent past that governments had described as impossible to deal with or ultra-violent – including Hamas, FARC, the Taliban and Al Qaeda – and all have been successfully called to the table for talks.

Shaking hands

In an enlightening and entertaining talk he drew upon both historical examples and his own colourful personal dealings with the likes of Sinn Féin, SDLP and the Unionist groups during more than 10 years of Northern Ireland peace negotiations.

Powell said his initial refusal to shake hands with the Sinn Féin leaders came partly from the fact that his father been injured in an IRA ambush and his brother placed on a hit-list for 8 years while working for Margaret Thatcher. He said that with hindsight, he now regrets that decision.

All leaders insist they won’t deal with terrorists, whilst secretly meeting them behind closed doors he said – citing John Major’s comment that talking to Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams ‘would turn his stomach’ (while covertly dealing with Martin McGuinness) and Dick Cheney claiming:‘We don’t negotiate with evil, we defeat it.’

Tea at The Dorchester

The best summation, he said, is from Labour leader Hugh Gaitskill who said: ‘All terrorists end up at The Dorchester having tea at the pleasure of Her Majesty’s Government.’

‘Some people say ISIS are just outlaws, too violent to negotiate with. They do carry out horrific acts – but so have other groups,’ he said, citing the IRA who had subjected victims to long, brutal deaths.

‘There are no nice terrorists or bad terrorists – there are just people who use terror,’ he said.
Mr Powell, who now runs the non-profit group Inter-Mediate, said that strong leadership, patience, building trust and the combination of ‘fighting and talking’ is the only proven solution.

ISIS have grievances and demands which must be addressed via a long-term strategy, he said, adding that now, while the fight is still very much active, is not the time.

'The ugly twin' of democracy

‘I’m not suggesting for one second that we should sit down now, while they are calling for a Caliphate, that would be ludicrous. But if you believe that simply bombing ISIS alone will work, then you are sadly mistaken,’ he said.

Terror he said, is a tactic used both by governments and armed groups to gain attention, legitimacy and power.

‘Terrorism isn’t going to go away unfortunately; there will always be other wars, other groups. Terror is the ugly twin of democracy.’

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